Uncategorized, Writing

How to Enjoy a Writing Excuses Retreat (On a Boat)

Imagine a writing conference. If you are a writer like me, you’re probably already excited, especially when you know it’s composed of primarily science fiction and fantasy writers. You get to go to this writing conference to hang out with some of your favorite writers, meet a lot of cool people who have similar interests than you and learn a ton about the craft, art and business of writing.

You’re not excited yet?

Well, picture all of that on a cruise ship. That’s what makes the Out of Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat extra awesome – in addition to hanging with Writing Excuses podcasts hosts Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Taylor – you get to do it all on a ship bound for several exotic destinations!

This does lead to a problem, however. If you are shelling out a ton of money to go on a writing conference on a cruise ship, how do you make sure you’re getting your money worth? Don’t get me wrong – the programming on a Writing Excuses Retreat is worth every penny – it’s chock full of great content, great writers and great opportunities to meet great writers. But how do you maximize your earnings on the cruise? Here’s are some best practices I’ve learned over the last two years:

Read The Instructors’ Books – Writing Excuses, like most conferences, presents seminars from both the hosts of the podcast as well as guest instructors. On the months before the cruises, I read Steven Barnes’ “Blood Brothers”, Tananarive Due’s “The Good House” and Claudia Gray’s first two Firebird books as well as her Star Was book “Lost Stars”, in addition to the most recent books from the primary hosts – Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Taylor. Was it a lot to read? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely.

Reading these books gave me several advantages. First, it made me extremely excited to hear what these writers had to say. But more to the point, it also gave me insight into their favorite themes and overall strengths as a writer. In addition to giving me something to talk with them about, it also gave me plenty of subject matter to pick their brain about.

Bring Something to Write – I know what you might be thinking. “Write? I came here to learn to write, to network, or to generally improve my writing career. I don’t have time to write.” Needless to say, the Writing Excuses isn’t buying it, and neither am I. The hosts have several incentives to get you in the writing mood, but without spoiling that, I found this second cruise was my most productive outing yet.

I came with a checklist of four or so projects, and not only did I have time for them all over the course of the week – but I’m also very pleased with how they turned out. I think being around so many people who are also passionate about writing super-charges the creative juices – so take advantage of it!

Keep in Touch – This last one might sound a bit basic, but it’s the truth.  Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells have said numerous times that there’s a reason they hit it big – by keeping their writing group going since meeting in David Farland’s fiction class. The same goes the Writing Excuses Retreat. You have ample opportunities to make friends, between group writing time, excursions, dinner, game nights and more. Don’t think of these friendly conversations as simply downtime – the relationships made here can prove extremely valuable.

The good news is that social media makes it extremely easy to keep in touch. There’s also Google Groups to help alumni stay in contact. Even so, it’s a good idea to take down each other’s information if you have the opportunity. Print a couple inexpensive business cards and hand them out at the cruise. When the event ends and everyone returns to their distant corner of the globe, you want to make sure you keep contact with friends from the cruise. These friends can keep you motivated and keep you writing, even when you are separated by state lines and oceans – so make sure you write down their name and e-mail.

The Writing Excuses Retreat is one of my favorite writing events to attend year after year, so if you can afford it, make it a point to sign up. While I admit it can be a pretty big blow to the piggy bank sometimes, the contacts, information and experiences make at these conferences is well worth the cost. So with any luck, I’ll see you next year on the 2017 Out of Excuses Writing Retreat!

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Agents of ERROR

We are definitely living in the Information Age. Between Google and Wikipedia, it’s extremely easy to research and find new information – without opening a single dusty old encyclopedia. That’s why it’s all the more frustrating when writers – even bestselling ones – get it wrong, especially when it comes to very, very basic information, such as the general roles of basic government organizations. It’s not entirely the writer’s fault – Hollywood also has a way of perpetuating these misconceptions over the years. So I figured I’d write out some noteworthy misconceptions on law and government that keep popping up in books and movies.

Interpol doesn’t arrest people.

I can’t really blame anyone for this. Interpol just sounds cool. It’s an organization of international police officers. The implications of the name are just plain awesome, like Law & Order meets James Bond.

But the truth is much less glamorous. Interpol is, in reality, a network of law enforcement agencies throughout the world which work to clamp down on transnational crime. They have no agents, do not make arrests nor do they issue warrants. The legwork is conducted by traditional law enforcement agencies within the country, not Interpol itself.

Keep in mind that you can bend the rules a bit if you are writing fiction. Maybe your main character works is an Interpol employee swept into a conspiracy of some kind (which isn’t far from the truth – as Interpol has been the center of corruption scandals in the past). Just keep in mind your main character is probably not a secret agent. Interpol is not SHIELD or MI6.

The CIA doesn’t arrest people.

This one is less common, but still crops up from time to time. It makes sense, because often the FBI and CIA are used interchangeably by Hollywood. But the Central Intelligence Agency is a spy agency focused on collecting and disseminating intelligence. It is not a law enforcement agency like the FBI.

It’s especially frustrating to read or watch a scene where someone identifies themselves as CIA with a badge and then carts off someone in handcuffs. Since they are a spy agency, there are very few situations where a CIA agent would announce their presence, especially to arrest someone. The CIA would most likely share intelligence with other agencies, whom would ultimately make the arrest.

Of course, when writing fiction, there is still a little leeway – especially in this day and age. It’s certainly feasible for the CIA to arrange someone to be detained and perhaps even harshly interrogated – especially if the person is a suspected terrorist. Just realize such a situation includes many moral and legal challenges. In any case, the CIA would not officially arrest anyone because it lies outside the scope of their duties.

The United Nations is not a superpower.

As with a lot of things on this list, this one makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the UN is a powerful organization, capable of rallying multinational peacekeeping missions and police actions, leveraging sanctions against rogue nations and providing humanitarian assistance throughout the world. So it makes sense that some writers might perceive the organization as a massive superpower with the ability to supersede the will of individual nations.

The truth is the United Nations has rather obvious limitations to its power. First off all, it has no standing military, and relies on its individual members to contribute to its peacekeeping forces. Secondly, the five permanent members of the Security Council – the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom – all have veto power to block resolutions, so its difficult to see them being forced to do something by the UN.

If you are writing science fiction, it’s easy to picture a world where the United Nations plays a far bigger role in world governance. The video game series Halo has the United Nations Space Command, which stands as a perfect example of this. Just know United Nations would have to adopt key changes to its structure for this to happen.

The Coast Guard are not glorified lifeguards.

Think about it. How many movies about Coast Guards have been made? The Perfect Storm, The Guardian and The Finest Hours are the only ones that come to mind. Now think of every film made about any other branch of the military. Hollywood is never wrong, right?

While it’s true the Coast Guard are most associated with maritime safety and rescue, the scope of their operations extended far beyond that. Existing as both a military and law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard’s mission also includes drug interdiction, international ice patrol and homeland security. Their Maritime Security Response Teams are trained in hostage rescue while boarding and seizing vessels. Their Precision Observer Marksmen Teams are capable of disabling boats from long range by firing a sniper rifle from a helicopter.

The move is yours, Hollywood.

Special forces are not dumb.

This one is admittedly rare, and when it happens in fiction and movies, it starts out innocently enough. Say you have a henchman who needs to more threatening, so you make him ex-black ops, which is code for “extra tough and menacing”. But this guy has an obvious weakness – he’s crude, xenophobic and/or downright dumb. (The same pattern can also be applied to redshirts on the side of the heroes). After all, all the military teaches is how to point and shoot, right?

Wrong.

Special forces are comprised as some of the most capable soldiers in the world, tasked with complex, high-risk, multi-faceted missions. It’s no surprise that many special forces branches prefer their candidates to have some form of college education. In fact, the CIA’s Special Activities Division, which frequently recruits from ex-special forces, requires its candidates have a four year bachelor’s degree for consideration, and some even come from Ivy League schools. The Green Berets require their soldiers to complete six months of language training, primarily because their mission is to provide foreign internal defense.

Whether good or bad, all characters need to be flawed in some way. That said, nothing bores me more than the expendable space marine with a gun bigger his entire body and an IQ less than his shoe size. Military characters especially should be handled dynamically and not as one-note, one-dimension cliches.

That’s it for this blog. Did I get anything wrong? Even though there’s a lot of resources available today, its still easy to make errors – especially when you are using the Internet as a primary source. But more to the point, what are some of the most groan-worthy errors you see in popular fiction and movies?

 

 

 

 

 

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A Word About Honorable Mentions

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an “honorable mention” as “a distinction conferred (as in a contest or exhibition) on works or persons of exceptional merit but not deserving of top honors”.

They are not participation trophies. I repeat, they are not participation trophies!

So what do writing contests have in common with reality TV competitions like “America’s Got Talent”, “The Voice” and “American Idol”? The answer is not crazy judges (or at least, not necessarily). Instead, both of these contests operate in similar fashion – by slowly whittling down the eligible entries over the course of several cuts, until only the finalists are left. Those entries which survive a cut or two but don’t make it to the semi-finals are usually conferred with some sort of “honorable mention” depending on their overall ranking. Thus, they aren’t given to everyone who enters – just to those who make it past the first cut.

How many writers eliminated per cut depends on the size of the contest, but it could be anywhere from thirty to seventy percent. Just ten percent of the submissions to the high-profile “Writers of the Future” contest receive some kind of “honorable mention” in a contest of hundreds if not thousands of entries. While it might not carry the cash or the publication of higher rankings in the contest, “honorable mention” is still nothing to sneeze at.

Why does all of this matter? Because writers need to celebrate their victories, even if they aren’t as big as they would like. Unfortunately, in a time of Millennial bashing, some confuse “honorable mention” with a “participation trophy” everyone receives. This just isn’t the case (nor would it be very helpful even if it was the case).

An unexpected victory, no matter how small, can fuel a writer’s passion for months to come. Whether it’s a kind word during a critique, a personalized rejection letter, or yes, even an honorable mention, a win is still a win. Writing is a solitary and often silent endeavor, making counting our wins all the more crucial. But there’s also plenty of negativity out there – so don’t let take your victory into the jaws of defeatism. Tune out the noise and focus on what you’ve accomplished – and where you are going next.

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Telepathic Writing

I saw a great video from Max Landis, the writer of “Chronicle”, “American Ultra” and the stellar comic “Superman: American Alien”. You can see it below (minor content warning):

Landis’ “drunk writing advice” is, as per usual, spot-on. I completely agree with his take on the writing process. It’s not a singular activity. Most of us think writing is something we only do when we are facing a blank word processor (or if you are lucky, a typewriter). But the truth is, we can (and should) be mentally writing first, even if it’s just in the car, at the gym or at work. The end result might not matter much to our word count, but it gives us a head-start before we have to face the dreaded blank page.

Don’t get me wrong – “not having time to write” is a frustration, because it usually means we aren’t making any progress on the page. Still, just mentally writing up a scene in your head can help your writing efforts immensely when you finally do get enough time to sit down and write.  I often times find myself circling around block one, two (or maybe six) times while I mentally plot out a scene step-by-step. I’ve also found a good walk can accomplish wonders towards getting my story ready to go on the page.

One of the worst things a writer can do is leave themselves at the mercy of inspiration. Sometimes you boot up your computer and the words just flow out of you like watercolor on a canvas. Other times it feels like you are trying to squeeze blood (probably your own) from a rock. And even mentally preparing your scene has its limits, because so often our productiveness is directly correlated with how we are feeling at that very moment. But mentally writing out your scene is a still a good way to get momentum going in your writing, even if it’s a bumpy ride going forward.

As Landis eloquently states, writing is telepathy. You are communicating a thought from your mind to the page right into another person’s mind. But it all starts in your mind – so it’s good to remember our own thoughts on a story are every bit as important as what turns up on the page.

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One Million Words

Malcolm Gladwell once said one needs at least ten thousand hours of practice to be truly good at something. His examples ranged from Bill Gates to the Beatles. So what does it mean to write for ten thousand hours? Many writers have theorized it is somewhere in the neighborhood of one million words.

As I’ve written before, the goal of one million words requires context. I’ve heard writers at a conference tell me they haven’t hit their million words yet, as if it was a homework assignment. Now I do think the one million word mindset is a worthy goal (I’m currently sitting around 360,000 words). But it comes with a few caveats.

You need a certain level of humility when you write. You also need to be realistic as you tackle project after project, writing draft after draft. And you need to keep writing, even if your current project falls apart on the last page. A goal of one million words is a good way of accomplishing this, because it gives writers a hard metric to strive for. But you also need to get excited about what you are writing. You need to know if this does work, it’s going to be freakin’ amazing. And that’s where some writers misunderstand about the One Million Word goal.

You can write a great book at any time in your writing career. It might be within the first two hundred thousand words, or might end on your seventh million word. But it doesn’t matter if this is  your first book or your fiftieth book – you need to keep rewriting and keep pitching to agents. Because even though these don’t add to your word count (unless you count query letters), revising and selling also takes quite a lot of a practice, and the more you do it, the easier it will become.

Writing a million words will make you a better writer, but let’s be honest: there is never a point in your writing career where you won’t be focused on learning or improving. Brandon Sanderson has written more than three times this goal (at least by at the time of this infographic) and yet he’s still working on integrating the lessons of other genres into his own work.

Trying to hit one million words is a worthy assignment, but it doesn’t lead to any kind of degree. Instead, it just leads to more lessons and skills on the road to being a better writer.

 

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Heroes in Orbit: A Critique of Batman v Superman

Picture this: you are writing the next Justice League movie. But you can’t do it alone. So you have Zack Snyder sitting in front of you at a restaurant. Snyder directed “Batman v Superman” – and he’s directing the next Justice League movie. So here’s the the million dollar question (or in this case billion dollar question): what would you do differently in “Batman v Superman” to make Justice League a much smoother picture? (And remember, Zack Snyder is sitting right across from you the whole time.)

Last week I wrote about how to tap into your inner critic to make your writing better. This week, I’m going to show that critiquing in practice – by digging into a movie I have mixed feelings about, “Batman v Superman”. This is going pretty in-depth, so there’s a SPOILER warning in advance.

It’s about two weeks since I saw the movie, and my mind keeps coming back to one pivotal character: Batman. Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader kicks a lot of butt in this movie. We see him beating up, branding and burning criminals alive (I’m not a big fan of that last part). We see him investigating the mysterious White Portuguese in Gotham. And later we see him preparing for the fight of his life – against the Man of Steel himself.  Dictionary.com defines a protagonist as “the leading character, hero, or heroine of a drama or literary work.”

Batman protags the hell out of this movie.

Like Indiana Jones or Han Solo, Batman is a man of action. He’s always moving towards some goal, whether it’s stealing Lex Luthor’s supply of kryptonite or inventing a Batsuit capable of taking on Superman head-on. Wonder Woman is also a force of nature, and though she doesn’t figure prominently in Batman v. Superman’s first two acts (her character shrouded in mystery), she does have a particular goal in mind – reclaiming a picture from Luthor. The proactive drive of both characters throughout the plot makes them among the most interesting and engaging figures in the film.

By comparison, Superman isn’t protaging – instead he is orbiting around the plot. While Batman and Wonder Woman both plunge into a Luthor-centric conspiracy, Superman isn’t really going in any direction. Sure, we see him being Superman, saving people in montage after montage, but we don’t see him moving in any goal, whether its earning the trust of humanity or just making making the world a better place. Perhaps its because Clark Kent is wracked with questions on what and who Superman should be in this modern world.

Now, it should be pointed out that conflict needn’t be external. In fact, internal conflict is one of the best ways to develop a character. And the theme of accountability for the incredibly powerful certainly resonate – since this very theme will also be explored in BvS’ competition, “Captain America: Civil War”. But the problem is the movie prematurely ends this conversation when the Senate hearing on Superman is blown up by a pawn of Luthor’s. By the end of the movie, there is no more conclusion on the nature of Superman – even as the world mourns for his death.

Beyond the characters, the structure of the film presents a key problem. Most stories involve a movement from reaction to action. But “Batman v. Superman” runs in the reverse direction, from the proactive push of Batman to Superman and everyone else being caught up in Lex Luthor’s fiendish plot. (And like Superman, Luthor is another character whose goals are neither established or concluded.) Even though most superhero films usually end with the main characters reacting to the threat presented by their arch-nemesis, the hero usually decides to dramatically confront the villain and the end the threat.

No such decision is ever made by any of the characters (save perhaps Wonder Woman, who is leaving Metropolis when Doomsday attacks). None of the characters make the crucial decision to stand against the villain, leaving the themes of the movie vastly undefined. Instead, they are merely caught reacting to his plan. (The theme of heroes cooperating with one another, doubtlessly important for the upcoming Justice League movie, is also undermined by Superman’s sacrifice, which seems needless when there are two other people capable of wielding a kryptonite spear on the battlefield.)

Ultimately, there are several merits of “Batman v. Superman” to learn from – and several mistakes to avoid. Chief among the merits are that characters are much more compelling in action – which is why Batman and Wonder Woman both appear as breakout characters of the film. On the other hand, “Batman v. Superman” lacks the necessary progression, not only from reaction to action, but also towards a unifying theme, which crucial to any story.

Critiquing can definitely be a valuable learning tool for a writer. While critiquing can highlight the p(l)ot holes to avoid in our own stories, it’s still secondary to the real challenge of the process – writing and creating – and that’s something you can’t do from the backside or the armchair.

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How To Harness Your Inner Critic to Improve Your Writing

It’s true: everyone’s a critic. What makes reviews so frustrating is that they are often written by people on the sidelines who haven’t attempted a piece of art. But you are different – you’re a writer, an artist, a creator. You know how it feels, because you’ve been there. Which means you need to take steps to ensure you view this from a different angle than the ever-popular armchair.

Picture this: you are meeting the creator of this work for coffee, whether they be a writer, director, artist, etc. You’ve experienced their work – and they’ve read your review. While sharp and witty might work for the news sound bites, that’s not what you’re after – your goal is to learn how to improve your writing. To do that, picture a person sitting across from you for coffee – and not for high praise or trash talking. Here are some other things to keep in mind:

If You Like This Work, Finds Things You Hate or If You Hate This Work, Find Things You Love

When critiquing a work or creator, it’s easy to choose love or hate. But both can blind you from learning crucial lessons about the creative process and your own writing. That’s why it’s important to have a list of what works and doesn’t work in any given work.

Often times, we have to replace our fan hat with our hard hat and look at structure instead of overall satisfaction. For instance, I didn’t really like the recent “Batman v. Superman”, but there were parts of the movie I really, really enjoyed. Isolating and analyzing said parts can help improve our own writing (more on this next week).

Think Choices

When a writer makes a choice to pursue a certain story, they open one door at the expense of closing another. Thus, every decision a creator makes in a work has a cost. Sometimes the payoff of their decisions are worth it – but sometimes they are not. As a result, we have to analyze works beyond simple terms of “good and bad”, and evaluate the decisions and consequences of storytelling decisions.

For instance, without going into spoilers, one of the precise moments “Batman v. Superman” stopped working for me was when a story beat sacrificed theme for tension. The move dramatically upped the stakes, but heavily damaged the overall theme of the movie, causing the third act to feel unfocused and incoherent. Raising tension is a necessary element of writing suspenseful stories, but themes are also important, especially in a story of character-driven conflict. The resulting decision ended up costing the story more than it gained, creating a painful negative value in the work as a whole.

Respect the Opinions of Others

Like I said, “Batman v. Superman” is a polarizing movie, with plenty of opinions on either side. The last thing you want to do is enter into a flame war on YouTube or IMDB over the merits or lack thereof on this movie. People bring different perspectives to every work of fiction or art. It’s part of the creative process that allows us to make something our own, and it’s definitely a process we creators can learn from. Respect the opinions of others – especially those you don’t agree with.

I loved the reviews of the late Roger Ebert. I didn’t always agree with his take on a movie, but I always found his reviews insightful and well-written. And more often than not, I ended up learning something upon reading his reviews. As creators, we need to keep an open mind when critiquing a work, and part of that includes listening to the observations of others.

Next week I will post a spoiler-filled critique of what I thought worked and failed in “Batman v. Superman”, and how we as writers can learn from this.